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Time for Truces

In the Democrats’ turn at bat (pardon the pun on an auspicious day in baseball) at the Des Moines Register debate on Thursday, candidates all but went out of their way to praise each other. They seemed to have common ground on almost all the issues. They even watched each other’s back.

It was a contrast to previous debates, which have promoted, almost from the start, contrast and contention.

The closest there was to anything even resembling a sharp exchange came when Hillary Clinton laughed (or cackled) as moderator Carolyn Washburn asked Barack Obama how his foreign policy would change given that many of his advisers came from the Clinton era.

“I want to hear that!” Hillary interjected.

Obama responded, “Well, Hillary, I’m looking forward to you advising me as well.”

She continued to laugh.

This final encounter of the candidates before the Iowa caucus was, like the GOP gathering on Wednesday, almost unabashedly wonkish, with the first 45 minutes or so of devoted to balancing the federal budget, policies on free trade and crop subsidies for farmers. You knew something was different when one candidate, Chris Dodd, brought up the problems with film piracy in China. It’s an issue everyone agrees is a problem, but it’s hard to get stirred up about it if you’re not the one being pirated.

Washburn’s questions were slightly better than the day before, and she got an assist from Clinton when she noted that all of the candidates would probably raise their hands on global warming’s threat. Fred Thompson brushed off the same query a day earlier.

Feel good moments and stump speech summaries were more common than policy differences on issues. At this event, you all but got the impression that there weren’t many. All agreed on the need for better paid teachers, for ambitious plans to pursue alternative energy, for parents to get more involved in their children’s education. “Turn off the TV set, put away the videogames,” Obama said. Who’d argue with that.

Perhaps foreshadowing the battles to come, the contrasts to their GOP counterparts stood out. Rudy Giuliani wants to cut corporate tax rates; Hillary Clinton suggested raising them. Fred Thompson said he’d be willing to incur deficits to maintain the defense budget; Joe Biden suggested cutting weapons systems.

Perhaps the signature moment was not about an issue at all, but when Washburn asked Joe Biden about gaffes that he has made when talking about race. At the start of his campaign, Biden had called Obama “clean,” and later apologized.

So Biden, his head glancing down at the podium, slowed his speaking tone and noted, “My credentials are as good as anyone who’s ever run for president of the United States on civil rights.”

The rest of the candidates responded, “Hear. hear.”

And Obama jumped in and said,  “I have absolutely no doubt about what is in his heart and the commitment that he has made with respect to racial equality in this country.”

It was a great respite from the acrimonious campaign — if only they could have called off the post-debate spin room.

Even Washburn, humorless the day before, managed a smile. John Edwards exuded perhaps the sunniest disposition, if only because he, looked not just at the moderator, but at the camera and the viewers at home.

Echoing his campaign’s themes, he said, “We have a small group of entrenched interests, corporate powers, corporate greed, the most wealthy people in America, who are controlling what’s happening in the democracy, and we have to take it back starting right here in Iowa.”

The difference was not in what he said, but how he said it. It sounded friendlier this time around.

On a day when Clinton apologized to Obama for her campaign co-chair’s comments, is this the new kind of politics. I’m skeptical there won’t be more acrimony, but it helps to project the positive side of things in your last shot, no matter how weary you are.

“I am going to use my 30 seconds to thank these people of Iowa for putting us through this,” Bill Richardson said, pausing for a second, “good process.”

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